The Sea, the Sea – Sarah Churchwell on the making of a monster

Iris Murdoch’s flawed protagonists are so often blinkered by their own egotism, but The Sea, the Sea’s Charles Arrowby is a bully to beat all others

In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, a popular writer named Arnold Baffin defends his regular production of books he knows are not as good as he’d like them to be: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better.” Character here presumably speaks for author, although one also suspects that poor silly Baffin’s platonic conception of a perfect idea is probably less perfect than he thinks. It’s a good bet that Iris Murdoch’s perfect ideas were better.

A published philosopher whose first book was the first book in English on Jean-Paul Sartre, Murdoch wrote novels of ideas about love, as well as the occasional love letter to ideas. Obsession is everywhere in her fictional landscape, but characters are as likely to be obsessed with art as with sex. Adulteration is the game: nothing remains pure, certainly not fidelity to other people, or to social conventions, even the most deeply held. Her characters are most faithful to their conceptions of themselves, which are almost never shared by those around them. In her essay “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”, Murdoch wrote that the most important thing for a novel to reveal, “not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist”. It was a point she made repeatedly outside her fiction: “In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego,” as she wrote in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’”.

Although Murdoch consistently denied that her fiction explored her philosophical preoccupations, the project of forcing flawed protagonists to see beyond the blinkers of their own egotism defines most if not all of her 26 published novels, among which two of the best are A Severed Head (1961) and The Sea, the Sea (1978). Both are narrated by self-regarding middle-class men with aspirations to aesthetic mastery. Fastidious and complacent, less wise and less kind than they like to think, they find their lives thrown into turmoil by their inability to recognise the agency, and desires, of those around them. These desires are always in part, but never exclusively, sexual: they are also a will to power. “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” Murdoch declared in “The Sublime and the Good”. “Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”

Truth is not the same thing as realism, Murdoch tells us again and again: “People lie so, even we old men do,” as the narrator’s cousin tries to tell him in The Sea, the Sea. “Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.”

Iris murdoch

Murdoch’s novels are not merely cerebral exercises in ideas about moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, although those ideas shape her fiction. They are also shot through with the dark energies of occult forces, variously figured as Eros, the id, the unconscious, the repressed, the monstrous, the supernatural, the libidinous: all that the conscious mind cannot comprehend stalks her hapless protagonists, as their precarious fantasies of control are exposed for the delusions they are. Murdoch’s fictional experiments, as admirers such as AS Byatt have written, fuse realism with the mystical, producing a very English magical realism at the point where 19th-century realism meets myth and fable. For Murdoch, artistic form was a temptation and compensation, a remedy for the contingent messiness of life, but also a consolatory falsification. She wrote that the novel was caught between the “journalistic” and the “crystalline”, the loose baggy monster that Henry James saw in the 19th-century novel, and modernist experiments in controlled, limited artifice. What feels to the characters like the forces of contingency battering away at them is just as likely to be their author’s implacable design, creating ruthless comedies of manners, and various manners of comedy. Around her intricate plotting orbit satires of art and morality, accountability and guilt, ethics and erotics.

Murdoch has been compared to James more than once in her interest in the moral consequences of relationships, of romance and society. Her sense of social and psychological satire owes much to his, as when her protagonist in The Sea, the Sea chooses The Wings of the Dove to read, “another story of death and moral smash-up”. But James’s careful social realism is quite alien to Murdoch’s sense of the ludicrous in her plotting, the sheer pleasure she takes in her own designs, while her willingness to tell stories from the viewpoint of her protagonists’ immoral casuistries makes them like reading The Portrait of a Lady from the perspective of Gilbert Osmond.

The official trailer for Richard Eyre’s film, Iris (2001)

One such figure is the appalling Charles Arrowby, the complacent centre of The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978. A failed playwright and actor, the tyrannically selfish Charles only found success in the theatre as a director, when he could exert his will over those around him (indeed he announces early on that any director who isn’t dictatorial isn’t doing his job). Charles fancies himself a Prospero, an old sorcerer abjuring a life of power and magic, but Murdoch gradually reveals that his most successful tricks were practised on himself. Charles has retired to a house by the sea, where he intends to write his memoirs. Insisting upon his need for solitude, he is irked when no letters come from his friends, and decides with characteristic high-handedness to summon a former lover, Lizzie, who once played Ariel to his Prospero, to keep house for him. He treats women as useful labour-saving devices, explaining, for instance, that he never learned to drive as long as he had girlfriends around: “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” He confesses that he has been accused in the press of being a “power-crazed monster”, a charge of which he sounds slightly proud. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, Charles is convinced of his own tenderheartedness, but Murdoch carefully shows the rage, misogyny and jealousy that fuel his self-absorption.

One by one, characters from Charles’s past intrude on his present, demonstrating a persistent sense of autonomy and agency that he finds deeply irritating. They all inform Charles at various times of precisely what his problem is, but his inability to recognise their accuracy is symptomatic of his failure: “You don’t respect people as people,” Lizzie bluntly informs him early on, “you don’t see them, you’re not really a teacher, you’re a sort of rapacious magician.” Once Charles discovers that his long-lost love Hartley, with whom he has remained obsessed for the 40 years since she left him (he admits with a pride some would consider misplaced), lives with her husband just up the road, he is overwhelmed by the compulsion to reverse the past. He becomes a kind of demented Jay Gatsby, determined to undo the choices of the woman he is certain must still love him, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. What he calls loyalty, others would call mania – not to mention stalking, breaking and entering, and even kidnapping: when Hartley resists his efforts at rescuing her, Charles simply locks her up.

During her captivity Hartley reasonably observes that Charles’s professed adoration for her is actually just rage that she left him: what he has been nursing is not devotion, but a grudge. “It’s resentment really,” she points out, “otherwise you wouldn’t be so unkind.” His response is to tell her that she has forced him into “a position where I have to play the bully, which is the role I detest most of all”. Charles may be the biggest bully in the 20th-century English novel. When he finally realises he shouldn’t have kidnapped Hartley, it is only to conclude that his mistake was in locking her up: it was a strategic error, not a moral transgression. Charles’s solipsism is universalising, embracing all before it: “What we talked about I will now recount, since some of it is relevant to my situation,” he explains at one point, before adding: “Indeed, now I come to think of it, nearly everything in the world is relevant to my situation.”

The question Murdoch leaves the reader with is whether Charles ever undergoes what The Tempest calls a sea change, and finds redemption. Charles believes he does, and some critics have followed suit: but he has rarely been right about himself before. And, tellingly, his “memoir” has become a novel: “So I am writing my life, after all, as a novel! Why not? It was a matter of finding a form, and somehow history, my history, has found the form for me.” Perhaps that’s because everything Charles thought he knew about his world was always his own fiction. He has taken refuge in the fantasy of control that is magical thinking: otherwise known as fiction, making people up. As his cousin James wisely remarks: “We cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge.” And at the edge of the known world, there be monsters.

Murdoch with her husband, John Bayley, in 1997. Photograph: Rob Judges/Rex
Murdoch with her husband, John Bayley, in 1997. Photograph: Rob Judges/Rex Photograph: ROB JUDGES/REX

As a cultural figure, Murdoch has shared something of the posthumous fate of writers such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf: the drama of her life contends in the public imagination with her own work. Memoirs by her husband, John Bayley, and Richard Eyre’s film Iris, in particular, defined her life around the poles of her defiant insistence on following her sexual desires where they took her, and the later years in which her great mind was shattered by Alzheimer’s. The cerebral image of philosopher-author is first subverted by the erotic exhaustiveness of her life, before the final, tragic twist of the assault by dementia, destroying her at the very source of her power. There is something mythical about such a fate, the terrible black poetry of it, which might almost belong in one of her novels.

But her art teaches us to continue to recognise her selfhood, the mystery and irreducibility of it, and to see morality in such an effort. All of her novels explore the contest between love and art as conduits to truth, and the ways in which contingency contends against form. Does art redeem? Does love? Or do we keep confusing our misunderstandings with metaphysics? Contingency is frightening, as all Murdoch’s characters know, capricious, unpredictable; but it is in the hazards of the fortuitous that life reveals itself. Love is also contingent, unpredictable, hazardous. Good art, Murdoch also said, is “the highest wisest voice of morality, it’s something spiritual – without good art a society dies. It’s like religion really – it’s our best speech and our best understanding – it’s a proof of the greatness and goodness which is in us.” Although Murdoch parses the grammar and traces the limits of love, she never stops believing in its moral force, or the spiritual potential of art. Art is impossible, so is love. And the only possible moral choice is to continue trying to achieve both, knowing that they are impossible.

• The Sea, the Sea & A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch has been reissued as an Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classic. To order a copy for £11.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Sarah Churchwell

The GuardianTramp

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